English 390/590*: Topics in Literature

Cr. 3

Nunes: Global Literature: A Search for Identity.   The journey of self-discovery and the existential question, “Who am I, in reality?” (Frantz Fanon), is common among people. Literature often provides us with a particular vista into personal and cultural identity. Through short stories, essays and poetry (including texts from rap music) we will explore how writers from around the world probe and profess who they are.

Writers include Chinua Achebe, Isabel Allende, Alice Munro, “Nas” (Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones), Shailja Patel and Derek Walcott.  Fulfills general education requirement in diversity.

Clark: From Parable to Paradox: Poetry of Faith What does faith look and sound like in language? Are certain words, images, and ways of speaking inherently sacred? How do poets of faith respond to The Word through words? Can poetry bring us closer to God? Thomas Aquinas argued that “poetic knowledge is of things which on account of a defect of truth cannot be grasped by reason and that is why reason must be seduced…” In other words, we need artistic seduction to lead our imaginations past the limits of reason. Approaching the relationship between verse and religion from another direction, Marilynne Robinson wrote that “great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry.” Of course this does not mean that all poetry, or even all great poetry, should function as theology. What these quotes do suggest is that poetic language, in its complexity of thought, in its incantatory sounds and rhythms, and in its frequently associative logic, offers unique avenues for the imaginative exploration of faith and religion.

In order to answer questions like those above and to imaginatively explore faith ourselves, this course will survey a range of modern poets who self-identify as religious believers. While the majority of our study will be focused on the wealth of 20th Century Christian poetry, we will read poets writing out of Jewish, Mormon, Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions as well. It is also important to note that although the subject matter of this course is deeply religious, one need not be a believer to interrogate artistic representations of belief, and, as we will see, the poetry of faith is sometimes inseparable from the poetry of religious doubt.

Texts will include Christian Wiman, Every Riven Thing, Lisa Russ Spaar, Satin Cash, W.H. Auden, Selected Poems, Khaled Mattawa, Amorisco, Czeslaw Milosz, Selected Poems, Louise Gluck, Wild Iris, T.S. Eliot, Selected Poems, Susanna Childress, Entering the House of Awe.

Wangerin: Creation Narratives
As a seminar, we will discuss the parallels and the differences among 6 ancient creation narratives:  the Japanese, Babylonian, Greek, Norse, Mayan, and the Bible.  The parallels will reveal the deepest questions and answers of the human experience.  The contrasts will show the differences which characterize various cultures.  These be considered in the light of the Bible:  what it shares with all humanity, and how it is unique.

Danger: Transatlantic Bestsellers                                              

This course focuses on a transformative moment in publishing history.  Between 1840 and 1870, British and American women writers published many bestsellers, proving that women’s fiction was capable of creating new audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.  During this same period, new forms of print flooded the marketplace and reached a transatlantic audience, including newspapers, serialized literature, and three volume novels for circulating libraries and popular genres such as realist fiction, social problem novels, and sensational literature.  This phenomenon—the rise of the professional woman author, the proliferation of print, and the transatlantic circulation of texts—will form the springboard for our investigation of six landmark bestsellers by American and British women writers. When examining these novels and their historical and material contexts, we will consider questions such as:  how did rapid changes in the literary marketplace and forms of publishing affect ideas about authorship? How did women gain authority as popular authors during a period in which gender, class, and racial identity were hotly contested issues? To what extent did literature by women work to resist cultural stereotypes and imagine new social roles?  Finally, we will consider to what extent these popular texts exhibit a “transatlantic character” in their attempts to wrestle with “The Woman Question”—a nineteenth-century social debate about women’s identity and social roles.


Clark: Lyric Passport
Czeslaw Milosz wrote that “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how hard it is to remain a single person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the door, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.” What he meant was, in part, that when we read poetry we allow our imagination to be accessed by a stranger. Alternatively, we might say that the lyric poem, which holds time in abeyance to dramatize emotional experience in language, allows us to dip into an artist’s mind and read the world from their perspective. This course offers students the opportunity to engage in the comparative study of poets and poetics from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. We will consider how poets from various cultures respond to similar problems in language, how an individual poet might speak not only for their nation but for humanity at large, and how poetic language is crafted to carry a freight of emotion across time and space. We will also ask questions about the function of the lyric. What explains its unique longevity as a genre and its continued power for contemporary readers?

Poets covered will include: 
Robert Lowell (USA), Elizabeth Bishop (USA), Sylvia Plath (USA), Philip Larkin (England), Margaret Atwood (Canada), Derek Walcott (St. Lucia), Pablo Neruda (Chile), Octavio Paz (Mexico), Anna Akhmatova (Russia), Osip Mandelstam (Russia), Eugenio Montale (Italy), Wislawa Szymborska (Poland), Czeslaw Milosz (Poland), Tomas Transtromer (Sweden), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Nazim Hikmet (Turkey), A.K. Ramanujan (India), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Pakistan), Bei Dao (China), Duoduo (China).


Niedner:  Failure and Forgiveness in Fiction.
In one way or another, most of the world’s stories revolve around some kind of brokenness and the search for reparation, reconciliation, healing, or wholeness. This course will take up longer and shorter pieces of fiction that directly or indirectly employ theological elements (images, allusions, back-stories, heresies, parodies, borrowed plot lines) in telling stories of human failure and the prospects for forgiveness.

In addition to reading (an average of about 160 pages per week over the semester), students will serve on small teams that rotate as class discussion provocateurs. Students will write several brief, informal, reflective pieces about course readings during the semester. They will write one mid-length paper on a topic of their own development. The only exam will be the final examination at the end of the semester.

Course reading list (an item or two may yet be dropped or added): The Bible; Short stories by Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Flannery O’Conner and Jorge Luis Borges; Stephen Adly Guirgis; The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (a play); Shusaku Endo, Silence; Robert Clark, In the Deep Midwinter; Sue Miller, While I Was Gone; Ian McEwan, Saturday; Marilyn Robinson, Home;  David James Duncan, The Brothers K.

Danger: Victorian Women Writers: A Transatlantic Conversation.
This course addresses two myths coloring perceptions of nineteenth-century literature: first, that the fields of British and American literature were discrete categories and second, that women writers were exceptional, minor figures in Victorian publishing. In fact, many influential Victorian writers were women, who influenced one another and who wrote for a transatlantic audience. In our discussion of texts written between 1840-1870 and their historical contexts, we will examine questions such as: how did women writers use literature as a means for resisting cultural stereotypes and for imagining new definitions of women's identity and social positions? Do the borrowings of these writers point to an "Anglo-American character" and voice in women's literature and art? How did their responses to "the woman question" reflect and influence other social and economic preoccupations on both sides of the Atlantic (e.g., social class, slavery, children's rights, the medical and economic treatment of women, educational reform, commercial publishing, etc.)? Course requirements will include a short paper, a research paper, and an oral presentation.

Proposed reading list:

  • Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre,
  • Harriet Wilson, Our Nig,
  • Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall,
  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton,
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin,
  • Elizabeth Stoddard, The Morgesons,
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley's Secret,
  • Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market,
  • Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.

Burow-Flak: The Worlds of Shakespeare.
This course examines selected Shakespeare plays and sonnets in the contexts of sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, and of selected works by playwrights contemporary to Shakespeare. The course’s title plays in part on Stephen Greenblatt’s recent biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, which is as much a portrait of the England in which Shakespeare lived as of the Bard himself. In the spirit of Greenblatt’s biography, the course will examine as well some biographical fictions of Shakespeare the cultural icon, about whom so little is actually known. The course includes viewing of selected plays live and on video, and will very likely include a field trip. The course intentionally does not repeat texts that have been covered in the most recent Engl 410: Shakespeare (with the exception of any plays that we will see as a class).

Units and Texts: I: Biographical Fictions (Romeo and Juliet; Shakespeare in Love; Will in the World; selected sonnets; Wilde, The Portrait of Mr. W.H); II: Problems in Comedy (The Merchant of Venice; Marlowe, The Jew of Malta or Massinger, The Renegado; All’s Well That Ends Well); III: Recasting History (Henry V; Marlowe, Edward II); IV: Puzzling Tragedy (Macbeth; James I, Of Demonologie; Dekker, Ford, and Rowley, The Witch of Edmonton); IV: Inhabiting New Worlds (The Tempest; Montaigne, "Of Cannibals"; Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the Newfoundland of Virginia). Assignments will include a short (5-6-page) and a longer (8-10-page) paper, a summary and presentation of a critical work, and periodic responses to a class discussion board or blog.


Burow-Flak: Women and Gender in Early Modern Literature.
Over the past forty years, scholars have formulated theories about women and gender that have changed the way we look at early modern literature. Examining the disparity between women and men in terms of legal rights, education, and social privilege, literary critics in the 1970s asked if, at the supposed pinnacle of Western thought between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, women had a Renaissance at all. Enabled by microfilm access to a large number of works printed in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, scholars in the 1980s began to identify a substantial corpus of publications by women in which the authors challenged their societies' stringent gender roles. In the 1990s, literary theorists have been examining gender as a social construct--a fiction--identifying an element of performance in masculinities and femininities that early modem literature, in particular, foregrounds.

This course examines four groupings of literary texts in light of the above questions. Works in the first grouping by Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, as well as by writers of conduct manuals for women, represent women or dictate how they should live. Works in the second grouping by Margery Kempe, Christine de Pisan, Aemelia Lanyer, Rachel Speght, Anna Trapnel, Mary Rowlandson, and Katherine Phillips respond to societal definitions of femininity, often taking part in then-current debates about women, and sometimes refashioning or creating their own literary genres. Works in the third grouping by Shakespeare, Ann Bradstreet, Christopher Marlowe, and Mary Wroth question definitions of masculinity and femininity, playing with more fluid definitions of sexuality and gender. Finally, works by seventeenth through twentieth century writers such as Angela Carter, Oscar Wilde, Abraham Cowley, and Jeannette Winterson rewrite the narratives by earlier authors on the syllabus, further refashioning gender constructs and interpretations of history as they do so. Assignments include a long (ten- to twelve-page) paper, periodic position papers, a presentation to the class, and a final exam.

Byrne: A History of Poetic Forms.
This course presents a study and practice in the formal elements of poetry through the analysis of model poems, critical essays on traditional and organic forms, and regular writing assignments in such forms as the sonnet, the sestina, or the villanelle. Students study rhyme, meter, rhythm, and other musical elements of poetry, as well as lineation, stanza pattern, traditional and experimental forms, and free verse. Readings include selections of poems from different historical periods in lyric, narrative, and dramatic modes. Students will also be assigned a term paper examining the history of a specific form or the use of and popularity of poetic forms during a particular historical period.


Juneja: Other Englishes.
It is possible now to speak of Englishes rather than English, of English literatures rather than English literature. Literature written in English thrives in many parts of the post-colonial world. Often it becomes the arena where a contested and complex relationship between the indigenous culture and the western world is being negotiated. What does it mean to be Indian, for instance, when you write in English and live in London? What is your relationship to the language and literature which had formerly been that of your colonial masters?

It is no exaggeration to say that some of the most interesting contemporary literature comes from outposts of the former British empire. this is literature with enormous vitality, suffering none of the tentativeness or self-absorption of the post-modern literary scene in America. The themes are wide-ranging, even grandly political. I propose to use texts from the following regions: Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent. Texts may include works by some of the following writers: Salaman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, R. K. Narayan, Bharati Mukherjee, Earl Lovelace, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aido, Chinua Achebe, or Nadine Gordimer.

Students will write at least one short essay, a long paper (ten pages), and participate in a panel or some other group presentation. Students should also expect a comprehensive final examination.

Wangerin: Sacred Tales I.
Cultures have defined themselves in the stories passed from generation to generation. The stories communicated are both the self-perceived character of that culture and its ordered view of the universe: how all things might be named and related; how this people fit with purpose into the cosmos. Once told as necessary truth, today these narratives are studied, rather, or read for pleasure. Each genre is represented also in the Jewish and Christian Scripture. This course will attempt to reclaim the oral nature of the Scripture's tradition 1) by studying the various genres as genres that shaped cultures; 2) by discussing the specific tales of the Scripture; and 3) by telling these tales in various ways again.

Juneja/Kingsland: African Politics and Literature.
This course uses the social and historical basis as a vehicle to achieve understanding of modern Africa and its literature. And it uses the literature as a valuable resource to achieve this social and historical understanding. We will begin with an analysis of traditional (pre-colonial) society and history, then move to an examination of European colonization and the African response, and conclude with an analysis of contemporary Africa's problems and prospects. Even as we achieve this broad perspective on the African experience, we will also have the opportunity to specialize in an area of interest.

Readings will be supplemented with films on society and history. The literary works, although they rely heavily on post-colonial writing from Africa, will attempt to match the developmental perspective we have sketched out here. Thus, we may begin with a slave narrative, and then move to a novel like Achebe's Things Fall Apart (Nigeria) which recreates the encounter between a traditional African society and the European colonizer. Other writers likely to be included are N'gugi (Kenya), Sembene (Senegal), and Farah (Somalia). Our enjoyment of this literature will, of course, not be limited to analyzing its social and political content.

Teaching responsibilities will be shared by a professor of political science and a professor of literature who do not always agree. Student responsibilities will include an oral presentation, a critical paper (six to seven pages), and a final examination.

Byrne: Contemporary Poetry.
A survey of contemporary (or Post-Modern) poets, 1945-Present. This course will examine the literary movements which have influenced poetry in the last half of the 20th Century (Beats, Neo-Surrealists, Minimalists, Neo-Realists, etc.) and the principal poets of the time, possibly including many of the following: Ginsberg, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Sexton, Merwin, Strand, Levine, Hugo, Smith, Bly, Ashbery, Dickey, Roethke, and Stafford.

Requirements for the course will include two formal papers (ten to fifteen pages each) and a final examination.